Putting Our Brains Together

JMU Center for STEM Education and Outreach set BrainBee Competitors Up for Success

Pictured Above: Dr. George Vidal works with Brain Bee High School Students in the NeuroScience Teaching Lab

Benji Cohen (Freshman at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Fairfax, VA), placed 2nd in the USA National Brain Bee in April, 2021. The USA Brain Bee is a neuroscience competition for teenagers whose “purpose is to motivate young men and women to learn about the human brain, apply it to their daily lives and to inspire them to enter careers in the basic and clinical brain sciences.” Cohen achieved this success after first winning the Shenandoah Valley Regional Regional Brain Bee, hosted by JMU’s Center for STEM Education and Outreach. Then, in preparation for the national competition, he received hands-on coaching in a wet lab environment from Developmental Neuroscientist Dr. George Vidal (JMU Biology Department). Benji is now the United States alternate for the more than 50-country International Brain Bee competition to be held later this year. Vidal’s connection? He credits his experience as a young student in the very same competition for inspiring his career. Now, he is paying it forward by hosting, coaching, and engaging with today’s competitors in the STEM Center.  

Vidal joined JMU in, 2016 and is known for his “Nature vs. Nurture” research in the development of the cerebral cortex. While in high school, Vidal competed in the Brain Bee himself. The competition sparked his interest in the field of neuroscience, and encouraged him to pursue his neuroscience research and teaching career. Recalling the importance of this teaching tool in his own scholastic growth, Vidal proposed that JMU become the host of a regional Brain Bee. “Dr. Vidal came to us with the idea to host a bee and now the STEM Center hosts and coordinates the event,” Dr. Kerry Cresawn (Director of the STEM Center) explains, “but George designs the competition and gets his own students very involved including writing the questions, talking about their research and putting the students at ease.”

For the past three years, the Center for STEM Education and Outreach has hosted the regional Brain Bee for high school students. In a typical year, the competition is limited to students in the 7-district Valley and surrounding region and students of teachers who are JMU alumni in Virginia. However, as many regional VA bees were cancelled this year, Vidal and the STEM Center decided to open up the competition to anyone whose local bee was cancelled. Cresawn says that the “Center’s top priority in all program-design is that they are equally accessible to all schools.” To accomplish this universal accessibility, the competition poses no cost to the students, and the Center covers bus expenses and lunch. Past Regional winners include a Page County High School student and a Woodbridge High School student.


2021 National Runner-Up, Benjamin Cohen

Vidal goes above and beyond the standard Brain Bee competition format by adding a visit to the Biology department neuroscience labs. Here, he and his research students engage the participants in hands-on learning with real human brains and cellular imaging and discuss the neuroscience research opportunities for undergraduates at JMU. The Regional Bee “gives students in our region an academic competition opportunity in STEM that they typically wouldn’t have otherwise,” says Dr. Cresawn, and, “we have had George and other faculty provide neuroscience research experiences as part of the on-campus competition day so this is also a valuable opportunity for our local kids.” On top of helping to organize the event, JMU Biology undergraduate students take the time with Brain Bee students to provide overviews of their research projects, and overviews of research areas in the field.  

This year, the regional competition and research-peek were held virtually. However, all of the contestants will be invited to JMU for their own special “Brain Day” once restrictions are lifted. Similarly unusual, the winners of the JMU-hosted regional Bee are invited back to campus by Vidal to practice for the wet lab portion of the national competition. This year, Benji Cohen received a perfect score in the wet lab at the National competition.

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